Cheers! Celebrate the season with local sparkling wines

Winemakers around the world have adopted the méthode traditionnelle to produce excellent sparkling wines that can rival Champagne in quality and often are more affordable. The same is true in central Virginia, where the caliber and recognition of locally grown sparkling wine is on the rise. Photos: Max March Winemakers around the world have adopted the méthode traditionnelle to produce excellent sparkling wines that can rival Champagne in quality and often are more affordable. The same is true in central Virginia, where the caliber and recognition of locally grown sparkling wine is on the rise. Photos: Max March

By Paul Ting

It’s hard not to love sparkling wine, and consumer trends reflect that: Its sales shot up 51 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to industry statistics.

Reflecting the trend locally, Virginia Sparkling Company, an affiliate of Afton’s Veritas Vineyard & Winery, announced in late October that it would invest $590,000 in a Nelson County facility, exclusively to produce bubbly. CEO George Hodson says the new venture’s mission is to “expand the adoption of traditional method sparkling.”

His specification of the traditional method is important, because it’s a reference to Champagne. The French—who object to the popular use of champagne with a lowercase “c,” because the word denotes the famous wine region in France—will tell you that what makes Champagne so good is the unique character and high quality of the grapes. But the wine’s production technique also plays a major role. It used to be called méthode champenoise (or “Champagne method”) but today is more properly called méthode traditionnelle, or traditional method.

The crux of the process is that the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. The resulting carbon dioxide is captured in the sealed bottle, creating the sparkle of sparkling wine. It usually also remains in the bottle for extended aging in contact with yeast and other sediment (known as the lees). This process allows for the development of greater flavor complexity and structure.

Winemakers around the world have adopted the technique to produce excellent sparkling wines that can rival Champagne in quality and often are more affordable. The same is true in central Virginia, where the quality and recognition of locally grown sparkling wine is on the rise. We owe this largely to Claude Thibaut, the “father of Virginia sparkling wine.” Thibaut hails from Champagne, where his family grew grapes and has produced sparkling wine since the 1950s. In 2003, the Kluge Estate Winery (the predecessor to Trump Winery) brought Thibaut to Virginia to establish the initial production of Virginia sparkling wine, using local grapes but classical techniques. A couple of years later, Thibaut partnered with childhood friend Manuel Janisson to open Thibaut-Janisson, which quickly gained recognition for high quality Virginia sparkling wine made utilizing méthode traditionnelle. From the early 2000s to this day, Thibaut has either produced or consulted on much of the sparkling wine coming from a rapidly expanding Virginia wine industry.

Other local wineries and have also brought sparklers to market, and with the Virginia Sparkling Company beginning production in the next year to 18 months, we’ll all have the opportunity to sample more effervescent local wine. That’s certainly the intention of Hodson, who is also general manager at Veritas and incoming president of the Virginia Wineries Association. “This project is consistent with the most Virginian aspect of Virginia winemaking, and that is a cooperative effort to benefit the region,” Hodson says. “A rising tide floats all boats.”

We recently sampled a bunch of local sparkling wines and are happy to recommend a few to grace your holiday table and ring in the New Year.

Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay Non-Vintage

100 percent Albemarle County chardonnay, $29.99

Readily available in local wine shops and even a supermarket or two (try Wegmans), Thibaut-Janisson has become the best- known traditional method sparkling wine coming out of Virginia. The nose is light
elements of lemon, white flowers, and a hint of limestone. On the palate, flavors of green apple, lemon peel, and white grapefruit predominate with just a hint of nuts. The finish is bright with citrusy acidity and a hint of the stone first evident in the bouquet.

Thibaut-Janisson Xtra Brut Non-Vintage

100 percent Albemarle County chardonnay, $32.99

This is the higher-end expression from Thibaut-Janisson and will certainly satisfy those who prefer a traditional dry Champagne style. It utilizes the best juice from the pressed grapes, a higher percentage of oak-aged wine in the final blend, and less added sugar. The result is a wine that’s livelier in acidity and delivers a fuller and more powerful body. The flavors here are precise but of a slightly higher volume. Fresh citrus and stone combine with flavors of dried fruits and layered creaminess, suggesting brioche with lemon curd on top.

Veritas Vineyard & Winery Scintilla 2015

Chardonnay with either merlot or cabernet franc, $45

Veritas normally releases Scintilla as a non-vintage product, but 2015 was an exceptional year so they kept it pure. This example spent two years aging in the bottle and expresses an aroma of yeasty bread and lemon. It pleases the palate with very forward citrus fruit flavors, refreshing acidity, and hints of an almond croissant. The lengthy finish is full of green apple
and pear.

Veritas Vineyard & Winery Mousseux Sparkling (Rosé) Non-Vintage

Cabernet franc, merlot, or both, $30

A beautiful pale salmon color in the glass, this lighthearted wine is all about strawberries. The nose is bright and lively with aromas of the fruit and a hint of watermelon. This is not an overtly sweet wine but there is enough sugar to highlight and elevate the fresh fruit flavor, again of strawberries. The finish lingers and brings to mind strawberry soda as it fades. Easy to drink and a sure crowd-pleaser.

Afton Mountain Vineyards Bollicine 2015

70 percent chardonnay, 30 percent pinot noir, $35

Winemaker Damien Blanchon, a native of France, crafts this traditionally inspired sparkling wine from two grape varieties used in the Champagne region. The wine ages for two years in the bottle, resting on the lees in the winery’s caves. On the nose there are hints of lemon-lime, green apple, pear, and a bit of kiwi. The palate is direct with classic citrus, apple, and brioche flavors. A very slight touch of bitter lemon on the medium length finish sets you up for a bite of food or another fruit-filled sip.

Early Mountain Vineyards 2018 Pétillant Naturel Malvasia Bianca

100 percent malvasia bianca, $30

Something quite different, utilizing a grape variety not widely seen in Virginia and applying the very of-the-moment pétillant naturel technique. “Pét-nat,” as it’s called, is also known as méthode ancestrale, which predates the traditional method. For pét-nat, carbon dioxide from the end of the first fermentation, rather than the second one, is captured in the bottle. The wine is made to be consumed young, so aging on the lees is not a goal. The Malvasia creates a nose that is sweet and honeyed, full of apple and pear and even a bit of banana, along with distinct floral notes such as rose and elderflower. The wine is only mildly effervescent, lightly coating the tongue with a fine layer of bubbles. Flavors of sweet clementine, white lilies, almonds, and the same hint of banana may surprise those expecting flavors of traditional sparkling wine. A long sweet finish reminiscent of a lime cordial completes this fun, inviting break from routine.

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